“The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”Joseph campbell
Words like interconnection, oneness, and non-duality all point to an underlying unity, an ocean of consciousness, in which we swim. And yet, we are individuals with a fixed point of consciousness, experiencing the Great Mystery through a narrow lens. This tension is the paradox at the heart of a spiritual awakening; how do we experience union as an individual?
The desire to transcend this narrow lens seems to be innate in humanity. Sometimes transcendence is sought through day-to-day experiences, losing yourself at a concert, a sports match, on darkened dancefloors, through the inhibition of alcohol, the endorphin rush of exercise or sex, immersion in stories read in books or watched on screens.
We might call this mundane transcendence, where the sense of unity doesn’t cause much disruption to the usual sense of perception. More demanding are experiences of oneness that obliterate the first-person view of the world, such as the hero’s dose of psychedelics or extended meditation that catapults the individual into the ocean, far beyond the safe harbor of the self for a period of time.
Clearly, this isn’t compatible with daily living or functioning in the world or relationship. When the boundaries of the self extend far beyond their usual confines, the world feels like a part of you. That’s potentially blissful or euphoric. But what happens when the ego’s filter, that which we’re so used to, gets caught up in the process? Joseph Campbell highlights the thin line between mysticism and madness.
Paranoia and Oneness
I’ve experienced chronic paranoia as part of my spiritual path. It’s been a powerful teacher of the nature of ego and interconnection. The sense of being the “center” of unwanted attention, of being observed, a feeling of presence or persecution, is fearful and isolating. Although the opposite of what mystics seek, the water is the same. I’ve been motivated to understand what mystics do differently.
A oneness experience comes with insight of underlying unity, of a subjective awareness that is, somehow, also everything observed in the world. Such a spiritual truth is life-changing. But when this is “claimed” by the ego, this spiritual truth can take a dark turn. Rather than a deeper awareness recognized in all experience, the sense of an individual “I” stretches into the world, the ego hitchhiking a ride to territory it’s unable to travel.
For me this manifested as auditory hallucinations, where conversations and dialogue — be it group discussions or the background chatter of public transport — merged with my thoughts and warped my perception into self-conscious storylines. It manifested as a sense of presence, in crowds or social settings, and more disturbingly, with no one around, outsourced to trees or the sky or God.
When this first started, I was convinced I was crazy. I wasn’t involved with spirituality, and the only model I had was what I was given, the typical Western worldview of material reality, with hard boundaries between the self and the world. When I started meditation and studying spiritual traditions, I understood the fluidity of consciousness, and that rather than crazy, I was experiencing that fluidity as part of an awakening process.
As my practice evolved, I started to have contrasting experiences, where a sense of oneness and interconnection wasn’t filtered through ego, but was liberating and harmonious. I started to comprehend the mystics. With consciousness as the foundation of reality, the blurring of the self and the world is logical. What is perceived as “out there” ultimately comes from within. Take this insight from Jungian analyst, Marie-Louise von Franz:
“The individuation process is more than a coming to terms between the inborn germ of wholeness and the outer acts of fate. Its subjective experience conveys the feeling that some supra-personal force is actively interfering in a creative way. One sometimes feels the unconscious is leading the way in accordance with a secret design. It is as if something is looking at me, something I do not see but that sees me — perhaps that Great Man in the heart, who tells me his opinions about me by means of dreams.”Marie-louise von franz, man and his symbols
Franz’s description of the “supra-personal force” might be misattributed as psychosis or schizophrenia. But Von Franz is an esteemed psychologist, one of Carl Jung’s most gifted proteges, using these terms to articulate the movement toward wholeness (individuation). What’s the difference? Von Franz understands the vast unconscious as an energetic force that is inherently intelligent and directive, that what is seen or felt or sensed as “out there” is a manifestation of this force.
Paranoia as a Pathway to Transformation
To sense a “secret design” is disconcerting without understanding the inherent nature of the unconscious. But the wider psyche, which extends beyond ego consciousness, has an innate pull toward wholeness. Its nature is benevolent, wise, and supportive. When energy from the unconscious surfaces into conscious awareness to such an extent it is sensed everywhere, that’s an opportunity for transformation.
I say opportunity, because this process, operating by its secret design and process, has to be surrendered to. If resisted or controlled by the ego, such experiences become painful and disruptive. The ego has to adapt, to sacrifice its image to integrate a more expansive sense of self, beyond its limitations. Reject it, and this process will be experienced as “other,” risking paranoia.
Alternatively, if the ego doesn’t surrender but claims the energy of transformation as “mine,” there’s a risk of pronoia, paranoia’s opposite, the sense of the universe revolving around the individual from a stance of specialness. This experience boosts the ego’s sense of superiority, leading to a potential Messiah Complex, the sense of being God, humanity’s savior, the Chosen One.
When such energy arises, dormant traumas, insecurities, or self-judgements can burst into consciousness. In yoga, these are samskaras, imprints in consciousness that are uprooted with equanimity and awareness. Overlooking the healing potential of these experiences misses the opportunity. But with patience and practice, tension will resolve, leading to greater spiritual maturity.
Learning to swim in the ocean of oneness is nuanced. The paradox teaches us that while our nature is one of interconnection, our psychology, emotions, traumas, or social wounds have to be worked through, to rest in the paradox of being connected to underlying unity and grounded in individuality.
It’s a reminder that “who you are” far exceeds the ego, that creative influences reside below the surface of consciousness, that while supra-personal forces may initially seem disconcerting, their nature is to guide you, ultimately, to the fullest version of yourself, leading the way, an energy to work with, an energy that is an inherent part of the interconnected universe.